King Hong Kong

Fred Ferretti, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo - November 2006

The foundation is still solidly Chinese but the big news today is the French invasion as tous les big names rush to set up outposts in this wildly prosperous financial center.

Hong Kong just cannot get enough of the French. Every day the small French culinary beachhead, already well entrenched, grows wider, and the disciples–the sous chefs and cooks from the brigades of Ducasse, Robuchon, Gagnaire, and Legendre—have followed along as the fashionable tables of Paris clone and migrate east.

This city, once a British colony, now a Special Administrative Region of China, eats avidly, and its appetite for all foods, particularly for what's in vogue, is insatiable. Hong Kong devotes as much time, preparation, and energy to eating out as it does to international finance, its other obsession.

Today the French influence is dominant, yet Hong Kong, ever accommodating, will welcome Nobu as Matsuhisa-san adds a sashimi outpost to his international collection next month in the InterContinental Hong Kong hotel in Kowloon. And his hot, hot competitor from London, Zuma, is opening soon across the harbor on Hong Kong Island in a hotel/office mall complex called Landmark.

Nor is that all. As part of a total renovation, the 43 year old historic Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong hotel entrusted its storied Mandarin Grill & Bar to Sir Terence Conran to a makeover, and he did just that down to one of his personal trademark takes on French tradition, a crushed-ice packed cold seafood bar.

Yet the name of today's Hong Kong restaurant game is decidedly French. Joël Robuchon, who just a few years ago opened Robuchon a Galera in the Lisboa, an ornate wedding cake of a hotel in Hong Kong's neighboring gambling enclave of Macau, will bring by year's end a L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, complete with his glorious soft-boiled oeufs mollets et friand au caviar oscietre to the top of a new Louis Vuitton store in the Landmark complex. (The globe-trotting chef has just overseen September openings in New York City and London.)

Across the harbor Alain Ducasse has placed another of his Spoon restaurants in the InterContinental Hong Kong just below Nobu. And Ducasse has installed chef Tjaco van Eijken from his Michelin one-star Parisian restaurant, Il Cortile, to tend to the Spoon mix-and-match menu, which includes such pleasantries as poached Brittany lobster in a court bouillion and a carpaccio "Cipriani style" of Wagyu beef. (The whole carpaccio concept, some may still remember, was introduced at Harry Cipriani's Harry's Bar in Venice.)

Back across the harbor yet again, Pierre Gagnaire has installed Pierre—not a copy, but reasonably akin to his Parisian Pierre Gagnaire restaurant—in the penthouse of the renewed Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, in the space formerly occupied by a Jean-Georges Vongerichten Vong, that was, to be kind, not successful in Hong Kong. Tending the kitchen is chef Philippe Orrico from Gagnaire's Parisian restaurant, who sees no reason why Hong Kong should not adore langoustines de trois façons as much as Paris.

A couple of blocks inland, the new Landmark Mandarin Oriental boutique hotel also bears the Gagnaire stamp. His former sous chef, Richard Ekkebus, cooking in its Adam Tihany–designed Amber, turns out such lovely dishes as Gillardeau oyster ravioli (lightly poached oysters, enfolded in transparent slices of Japanese cucumbers, served with lemon and nori sorbets) and his French take on Kurabota pork belly, which is slowly cooked for 11 hours and served with Chinese white radishes and Chinkiang black vinegar.

At the new Four Seasons Hotel, in the Central area near the two Mandarins, sits Caprice, another glittery representation of haute French. Its chef is Vincent Thierry, recently sous chef under Philippe Legendre of the Michelin three-star Le Cinq in the Four Seasons Paris. Legendre himself was for years chef de cuisine at Taillevant before being enticed to the Four Seasons.

Caprice's menu, though thoroughly French, pays obeisance to its home, being printed in English and Chinese. Thierry turns out sautéed Dover sole with poached green asparagus and Bordier seaweed butter; he garnishes his fresh foie gras from France with a compote of Granny Smith apples and beetroot flavored with dry Sherry. His hand is light.

Over at the Island Shangri-La, Petrus, the bronze, baroque aerie that is perhaps Hong Kong's most popular opulent French restaurant, boasts a 40 vintage list of its namesake wine going back to 1906. A magnum of the 1906 vintage costs HK$140,000 (U.S.$19,000); a bottle of the 2002 vintage costs HK$18,000 (U.S.$2,400). Sébastian Ehret, who cooked for both Ducasse and Robuchon in Paris before coming to Petrus, was helming the kitchen when we dined there (he transferred to a sister property in Singapore in August). Ehret favors the cooking of his native Alsace, warm, comforting artistry. How else to describe the softest of potato gnocchi cooked in foie gras cream with truffles from Périgord or pan-fried scampi with chanterelles and savoy cabbage dressed with a sauce derived from an intense shellfish stock.

Ehret was part of the early French migration. But he has not been alone. At the historic French restaurant Gaddi's, in The Peninsula Hotel, chef David Goodridge became executive chef after several years with Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons in the Oxfordshire countryside and some time with Gagnaire before coming to Hong Kong. Gaddi's, more than 50 years old and as handsome as ever with its muted blues and golds and crystal chandeliers from Shanghai, has never wavered from its French lineage.

For Goodridge, it's all flavors and details. He sets his wild salmon atop a puree of minted peas and dresses it with cucumber butter sauce. He complements perfect quenelles of pike with pan-fried crayfish and little cups of crayfish bisque.

Though Hong Kong has welcomed this French invasion with open arms, its culinary bedrock continues to be the best Chinese cooking in the world. In the vanguard is that best of all Cantonese restaurants, Fook Lam Moon. Over the years, the important master chefs, the "dai see fu" of this city's Chinese hotel kitchens, have come from what we call Hong Kong's "Culinary Academy." Virtually all of them have stood in front of the woks at Fook Lam Moon, there to be tutored on how to cook with elegance and purity by that famous restaurant's sole proprietor, Chui Wai-Kwan. When Hong Kong's hotels want a master, they call Mr. Chui.

And so, at Lung King Heen in the new Four Seasons, the Chinese executive chef is Chan Yan Tak, once a cook on the Fook Lam Moon line. Chan says his food is "traditional" but with "creative presentation," such as a braised whole goose liver in a sauce of finely pureed abalone and shark fin soup made fresh with slices of bean curd and lobster and a dollop of caviar.

At T'ang Court in the Langham Hotel, another Fook Lam Moon alumnus chef, Mak Kip Fu, takes customary fried rice and gives it elegance with slices of lobster and fresh foie gras; his concept of a simple vegetable stir-fry is unusual indeed, a mix of lily bulb petals, sugar snap peas, silk squash, yellow cloud ear fungus, and carrots, all touched lightly with an intense chicken stock.

In Summer Palace, in the Island Shangri-La, still another graduate, chef Lee Keung, holds the position of executive Chinese chef for the entire Shangri-La hotel chain, yet he continues to cook dishes such as feathery scrambled egg whites with diced scallops and crab roe. He also takes the tiny ribs from a roasted suckling pig and sautées them with browned garlic. And one of his students—sort of a Fook Lam Moon training course once removed—chef Ip Chi Cheung at the Kowloon Shangri-La's Shang Palace, delights in showing off his creative dim sum, such as a vegetable shumai dumpling that includes mushrooms and sea moss, topped with a fat cube of fresh foie gras.

Over at Yan Toh Heen in the InterContinental Hong Kong, chef Lau Yiu Fai, rolls golden crab roe in rice paper to deep fry into fine yellow fingers; he also breads and fries a cylindrical cake of fresh pears and scallops with salty Yunnan ham.

When we are in Hong Kong, we always have a meal with Mr. Chui, and this trip was no exception. Over the best, crispiest suckling pig we've ever eaten, he told us that it has become difficult for him to continue to send out cooks from his brigade, as now his own Fook Lam Moon empire has spread to Shanghai, Tokyo, and Osaka. "I do not wish to have a shortage of chefs for myself," he said with a smile.

Just as there is this specific lineage for Chinese restaurants, there are new restaurants appearing with regularity. Among the newest and best is Hutong, crowning a new commercial building in Kowloon. Strikingly dramatic, it's furnished with reclaimed furniture from China, all set against two and three story windows that look down on the harbor. Named for hutong, those narrow alleys of Beijing, the restaurant specializes in the cooking of the northern regions of Sichuan and Shandong. Executive chef Calvin Yeung excites with such dishes as deep-fried soft shell crabs nestled into a basket of dozens of bright red fresh chiles and boned lamb ribs topped by slices of crisped skin.

It's eye-catching, satisfying cooking, which describes as well the food of Dong Lai Shun, a restaurant of Muslim Chinese origin in The Royal Garden hotel. A branch of a traditional Beijing restaurant, this interpretation is angular and starkly modern. But like its parent, its menu features lamb in many guises. Its interpreter is the hotel's executive sous chef, Patrick Lin, an unusual fellow: Hong Kong born, classically French trained, yet expert in the cooking of China's many regions. His crisped eel snaps to the bite; his stir-fried baby river shrimp glisten, seasoned only with oil and salt; and his quite unusual crabmeat, set atop crisp rice cakes with salted duck egg yolks and accompanied by a ginger tea jelly, is a wonder.

Finally, among the best to debut is Cuisine Cuisine, in the new International Finance Center that's part of the Four Seasons complex. This is a Cantonese restaurant with a difference. Chef Chan Kam Shing plates his food Western style, and he's mildly daring. An unlikely vegetable consommé is made from fresh corn, carrots, and water chestnuts and he fills his spring rolls with scallops.

What's not Chinese or French these days in Hong Kong is Italian. Like everywhere else on the globe, this city is peppered with new Italian restaurants, among them Gaia with an outdoor cafe garden, and Angelini in the Kowloon Shangri-La.

Among the spate of Italian restaurants there are no better cooks than Umberto Bombana of Toscana in The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong in the Central District and Giandomenico (Gianni) Caprioli of Isola, another of the International Finance Center's many new restaurants.

Bombana, from the ancient Lombardy city of Bergamo, cooks with a sure and precise hand. There is cool brilliance in his tuna/lobster carpaccio dressed with black olives and lemon ice cream. The taste lingers, as does that of his zucchini flowers stuffed with prosciutto and lightly sweetened ricotta served in a cold cantaloupe soup.

Caprioli, a native of Potenza, was chef for the Gianni Agnelli (Fiat) family in Turin before venturing East. His cooking is perhaps more rustic than that of Bombana, but no less fine. We enjoyed white polenta with scallops and curly strings of fried onions; spaghetti tossed with sliced Sicilian bottarga and risotto of artichokes and Arborio rice held together with butter and egg yolks. Nice cooking indeed.

Last, but by no means least, is one of Hong Kong's newest restaurants, only a few months old, whose singular menu recognizes virtually all aspects of the city's gastronomic spread. Called Top Deck, in that it was created by decking the top level of that widely recognized attraction, Jumbo, the 40 year old floating complex harboring three large Chinese restaurants in its lower deck, it sits offshore in the Aberdeen section of Hong Kong Island.

What were mah-jongg pavilions and private rooms on this third deck is now a casual lounge restaurant and, under executive chef Alan Yau, a place for variety: Thai tiger shrimp dressed with tiny hot chiles; foie gras with fresh sliced avocado; bouillabaisse and penne all'arrabbiata; salami and olive pizza; and barbecued spare ribs. Perfect for brunch on a sunny day, it's where we spent our last Sunday in Hong Kong before leaving, eating Sydney rock oysters as we looked over the South China Sea, understandably wishing we could stay just a bit longer.